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In a Speculative Light

Portrait of James Baldwin
Beauford Delaney (Knoxville 1901-1979 Paris)
Portrait of James Baldwin, 1944
Pastel on paper 24 x 18 3/4 inches
Knoxville Museum of Art, 2017 © Estate of Beauford Delaney, by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire, Court Appointed Administrator

Writer James Baldwin and painter Beauford Delaney were among the greatest 20th-century Black American artists. Friends for more than 30 years, both were prolific craftsmen who moved deftly through different artistic styles. Both were influenced by jazz and blues; both were obsessed with the properties of color and light. And both were at one point struggling bohemian expatriates alienated by homophobia and racism that permeated society and arts cultures.

The story of their friendship is well known. Their respective influence among peers was extensive. The one missing piece of information is how their relationship shaped the art of their time.

Open to UT faculty, staff, and students, In a Speculative Light: The Arts of James Baldwin and Beauford Delaney will explore, for the first time, the impacts of this artistic friendship. The symposium is hosted by the UT Humanities Center and will run February 20-21 at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in the university’s new Student Union building. The event will showcase renowned Baldwin and Delaney scholars working in literary studies, musicology, and the visual arts. Speakers will analyze how Baldwin’s and Delaney’s lives intersected with the jazz, painting, literature, and identity politics of their time to shape new perspectives on black arts history and American modernism.

“This event will galvanize new and visionary Humanities Center programming centered on the public humanities,” said Amy Elias, director of the Humanities Center and symposium organizer. “The Delaney/Baldwin symposium connects UT to regional arts centers, history centers, libraries, and local communities around a cultural figure of key importance to the history of our state.”

All plenary sessions of the symposium will be live-streamed for public viewing at the symposium website.

“The symposium is open to UT students, and because the keynote lectures will be made public online, the symposium will provide educational opportunities beyond the classroom,” Elias said.

The keynote lecture by Fred Moten, poet and professor in the Department of Performance Studies at New York University, is open to the UT community and the public. Part of the Humanities Center’s Distinguished Speakers Series, Fred Moten’s lecture, “Blue(s) as Cymbal: Beauford Delaney (Elvin Jones) James Baldwin,” will take place Thursday, February 20 at 3:30 p.m. in the Student Union Auditorium. The lecture will bring together James Baldwin’s writing, Beauford Delaney’s painting, and Elvin Jones’s theory of music. Professor Moten will discuss how Baldwin and Delaney immerse their audiences in art in a way that leads them to new ideas about black identity and aesthetics beyond any of the familiar intersections of personhood, narrative, and portrait that define these in mainstream society.

Funding for the symposium is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities; the UT Haines Morris Endowment Fund; the UT Hodges Better English Fund; the UT Office of Research; the UT Office of the Vice President for Research, Outreach and Economic Development; and the UT Humanities Center.

For more information, visit